Posts Tagged ‘violence’

I’ve just started reading Goran Therborn’s ‘From Marxism to Post-Marxism?’.  I’m ploughing may way through this, trying to get a handle on the whole post-Marxism thing, as a counterpoint to my standard reading fare of 19th and early 20th century Marxist thought.  First impressions?  Well, I haven’t been that impressed by the analysis that makes up the first chapter of the book.  Therborn starts off by surveying the current political configurations within which a new/revitalised Marxism must operate, drawing on such staples as the rise of China / India and the decline of American power, but without placing these into an explicit conceptual framework.  Because of this, he gives the impression of being in line with, not a radical tradition, but the kind of reasonably conservative, liberal thinking on geopolitics that you might read in prospect magazine or hear on the more thoughtful programmes on BBC Radio4.  There is some interesting anecdotal and statistical information here – notably on the continuing significance of the nation state and the failure of global corporations to take complete control of levers of power – although nothing that wasn’t stated a few years back by Alex Callinicos in ‘An Anti-Capitalist Manifesto’. This concentration on the state reveals a very top-down conception of the possibilities of power, which I hope will be challenged in later chapters.  As a starting point, however, it seems to create little room for the discussion of workers’ movements (although there is much criticism of non-socialist popular movements), or of grass-roots activism that does not aim at taking control of the existing paraphernalia of the state.  But anyway, It’s just the first chapter so perhaps this is a (long…) rhetorical technique and will be reversed later on?

One segment of this first chapter jumps out as worthy of a more in-depth examination, and that is the section on the failures and successes of ‘the left’, which Therborn sees as the key to understanding the current condition of weakness of the left.  I’m going to set out a couple of the highlights of this approach below, and comment on them as I go, as a way of straightening out my own thoughts on the subject.

The discrediting of explicit racism and the fall of colonialism.  I’m really not sure that the ‘left’ can take credit for these events, especially not the ‘old left’ that Therborn seems to be suggesting can do so.  The ending of racist policies in the United States required a coalition of organisations and campaigners, notably the churches and groups based around local activism.  This was taking place during a period when the left was vilified in public and to chalk it up as a victory for the left, rather than as a victory with which the left shared common cause is to denigrate the contribution of the many groups involved.  The same goes for the ending of Apartheid in South Africa.  Although left groups were very active in the global anti-apartheid campaigns, the campaigns themselves were much broader than Therborn suggests.  The ANC in South Africa had to distance itself from it’s Marxist influences and partners to become an ‘electable’ party for the Western nations with the greatest influence in the region.

It is also disingenuous to suggest that de-colonisation took place as a result of left pressure.  The post WWII situation was dire for the European powers, economically and militarily.  The decolonisation of parts of Africa and Asia was an economic necessity for the imperial powers who could not afford to resource the colonies effectively and also a requirement of US loans for post-war reconstruction.  The US always saw decolonisation as an end result of their participation in WWII, opening up a space for future US economic and military might.  While it is true to say that there were a number of independence movements who claimed inspiration from the Marxist-Leninist tradition, it is also true to say that many of these were client states of the USSR and / or China and that, Vietnam and Cuba aside, the left-character of the majority of these new states did not outlast the cold war.

The new feminist movement.  The roots of the feminist movement(s) are diverse and, although the movement flourished in the 1960s and 1970 within the left, it both makes claims to a broader heritage and aspires to a broader range of future possibilities than those offered by the left that Therborn sketches in this chapter.  To claim feminism as a triumph of, rather than with, the left is to confuse context with causality.

An under-estimation of the right’s capacity for violence.  From the massacres of Marxists in Indonesia in the 1960s, the repressive violence of Pinochet’s Chile in the 1970s, violent policing of dissent in Thatcher’s Britain to the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a characteristic of contemporary capitalist development has been the tendency of the state to deploy overwhelming force in face of protest or to enforce political-economic dominance.  The failure of the left to grasp this fully has meant that it has been repeatedly battered back, physically and ideologically in the face of state violence.  This has also been a missed opportunity to present an aspect of the current system that would help to demonstrate the negative aspects of neoliberal capitalism, as a counter-weight to the appearance of rising prosperity and the phantasmagoria of the spread of democracy.  The Respect Party and the Stop The War Coalition in the UK have gone some way to addressing this, but what is missing from the public sphere is a systematic, coherent critique of state violence that demonstrates it’s core function in Western capitalism.

I think that will do, for now.  As you can probably tell I’ve had a strong reaction to what I’ve read so far, even if I don’t agree with it all.  The list provided of left successes is pretty short, once you start to question the assumption over what is, and isn’t, down to the left after all.  Fingers crossed that Therborn will pull the Marxist rabbit out of the dialectical hat.